You’ve never met anyone like Annie, a woman who’s known what she’s all about since the beginning of time. That’s a pretty big statement, and I know she’ll disagree with me, but I’m not talking about things like a passion for lip gloss or even a noble desire to save the oceans. I’m talking about her inherent gift of knowing where she stands, and her willingness to live into it.
I remember in college she needed to register for class. This was back in the pre-internet days when you stood in a massive line, ten students wide by twenty students deep, and told one of the clerks which classes you wanted to sign up for. Students were assigned registration times based on how many credit hours they’d attained, plus a random factor of what letter their last name started with.
Required classes were filled quickly, so there was always a great deal of tension in the herd as we stood there, hoping to get the classes we needed. Any time someone at the front of the line requested a class, an impatient sigh or two from deeper within the ranks could be heard, the sound of one more available seat being flushed away from them.
Annie approached the frazzled clerk at the front of the line, who pulled up Annie’s name, entered some information…and promptly erased Annie from the system. It was an accident, but there was no undo button back then, and suddenly there was no way for her to register for any classes, much less the ones she needed.
They offered her one option, “We can get you set up in the system over the weekend, and you can come back on Monday.”
The chance of this working correctly was nearly as slim as the chance that anyone would come into the office on the last weekend before classes began, just so they could fix Annie’s record. Furthermore, the line behind her wouldn’t be getting any shorter, and a new wave of students would arrive every fifteen minutes as their time slots opened.
“The other option is to wait here until you get my records back, so I can register today. I think I’ll take that option,” she replied, as she set her backpack down on the desk.
Seven hours later, late into Friday evening, she finally left the registration office with her schedule in hand.
It’s been like this with Annie for the forty years I’ve known her. When she knows something is right, whether it involves deep moral convictions or it’s just the obvious right thing to do, she becomes unstoppable.
The first time we met, toward the end of 3rd grade, I’d noticed her walking down the hallway and wondered who she was. We didn’t see each other very often, as she had a different teacher, but hadn’t I also seen her at church, singing in the choir? Something compelled me to figure out a way to meet her, but I’d have to wait until the following year.
I grew up Catholic, but my folks didn’t want to pay for Catholic school when public school was free. Nevertheless, high quality guilt and a genuine attempt to raise moral kids led them, and many others, to enroll their children in the church’s CCD classes, a sort of crash course in Catholicism. Every two weeks or so a bus would pull up to Harmony Elementary school, which was public, and kids who were enrolled in the local parish program would climb aboard. The bus then drove a mile to another school, grabbed another load of indifferent youth, and drove us all two more blocks to the church where we’d stay for a few hours, until the bus returned to bring us back to school.
On the first day of CCD during 4th grade, Betty Osowski herded a squirming mass of children from all over the district to the cold tile floor and cement walls of O’Reilley Hall. We sat on the ground, waiting to receive our fate, as Betty assigned each of us to a group led by a parent volunteer. Upon hearing my name called, I stood up, walked over to my new teacher, and stared at all the strange new faces.
We all stood there waiting as more names were called. I wondered who might join our group, and prayed fervently to Jesus, whom I believed was extra attentive considering where we were, that at least a few particular kids would wind up in someone else’s class. And then I saw the blondest haired, bluest eyed girl in the hall walking toward our group. Jesus smiled as the girl from 3rd grade greeted our group and stood next to me.
Annie and I started talking immediately. I don’t know what we discussed but it was probably the simple conversation where a couple of 4th grade girls, not yet at that awkward level we’d all find a few years later, welcomed each other to the fold.
I jumped in, peppering her with questions. “Weren’t you at Harmony last year? Who do you have this year? Did you miss the bus? I never saw you get on.”
Without batting an eye, Annie replied, “I transferred to Carver this year, so I took that bus. We moved and I needed to switch schools.”
“Why’d you move?”
“We got a house.”
“Do you like your new school?”
“Yeah, my teacher’s really good!”
“I got Miss Lewis. I hate her.”
“I remember her, the one with the cats,” and then we got shushed for the first of many, many times. We were inseparable.
During large group time, when the entire roster gathered behind the church altar for story and sing-along time, we sat in the front row, singing so loudly that Betty said she’d probably break a guitar string from strumming so hard. We sang louder, staring at the strings and praying for the big event, and pray we did. We volunteered prayers for the sick, homeless, foodless people around the world, we offered prayers of thanks for our parents, our grandparents, someone’s cat, and cheese pizza. We squeezed our eyes shut hard, that God might hear us better, because our silent prayers had to be the loudest.
Annie talked almost as much as I did and made a lot more sense, but even as kids it was like she came from another realm. She was fearless as we argued together that the Holy Trinity made no sense at all. Our teacher told us we had to take it on faith alone, and our classmates told us we’d better be quiet, or we’d wind up in hell. Annie chuckled at the silly children surrounding her, like a Catholic Buddha, and pointed out that doubting your faith could, in fact, make it stronger. Their mouths could only hang open as I quickly came up with examples to support her argument. We both loved every minute of CCD.
The next year, in 5th grade, our reign continued, and we were once again in the same CCD class asking all the tough questions, waiting for the guitar strings to break, and planning our future together as nuns, or maybe veterinarians. We learned that we both loved Jim Croce and Little Orphan Annie, animals and stickers, cars and sports—and I learned that Annie’s mom, Carolynn, trained horses. From time to time Carolynn volunteered or just stopped by. I don’t remember exactly why she was there, but she was beautiful and kind, and I adored her, too.
One particular morning, before school, as I inhaled a breakfast of Count Chocula, I began an argument with my own mom about how I needed a horse, and how only horrible parents don’t buy their kids a pony.
“I’ve wanted a horse since first grade! Why can’t I get a horse? They’re not that expensive. It’s not fair, I mean we don’t even have a dog. You and Dad are so mean!” I had logic on my side and if I could just add enough passion, just press the right buttons, I was sure to sway her.
“We can’t afford a horse and they are very expensive,” she impatiently replied. We had this conversation every week or two and as usual, the argument continued back and forth. Finally, Mom’s patience ran out, and this time she snapped.
Barely containing her anger, her voice ominously quiet and low, the hammer fell. “I’m taking care of two patients in the hospital right now, and both of them had horse accidents. One of them has a few broken bones from getting kicked, and the other one is in a coma. I will not support getting a horse because I will not take a chance like that. I cannot let myself be a part of it, so you’re just going to have to wait until you’re an adult when you can buy one yourself.”
Somehow, I just had a feeling. And when Betty Osowski approached our table, I knew what she was going to tell us.
“Annie won’t be in class today because her mom’s been in an accident. We should all pray for her,” and then Betty walked away, and the rest of the kids sighed, and I don’t remember another day of CCD after that. Not one.
My own mom was a nurse at the county hospital, a Level One trauma center, and in an extraordinary coincidence of grace, Carolynn was her patient. Mom had an affinity for Carolynn and usually requested to be her nurse, but I don’t know when she made the connection that Annie was the girl whom I’d always spoken so highly of. At some point she figured it out and Annie, an only child, was simply folded into our family’s world after Carolynn passed away a few months later.
Annie and I remained inseparable, swimming and singing and performing in local plays together, rescuing worms in the gutter after a thunderstorm, discussing our views on God and chatting about the travails of elementary and then junior high school. We’d talk of our future lives as nuns a lot too, although that never quite panned out.
Sometime during our teenage years we were driving down the highway, Annie at the wheel, and she said something I found surprising. She was reflecting back on the days and weeks after her mom’s death, and everyone’s effort to support her and her dad.
“I remember the adults were downstairs, and they probably assumed I couldn’t hear, but they were talking about poor Annie as though I were doomed, like I was some kind of lost cause. I was so angry!” I remember thinking how at that age, I probably would have been grateful for the pity, and would have slid comfortably into the role of victim.
She watched the road intently as she drove, and in the same matter-of-fact way you’d tell someone you don’t like mayonnaise, quietly remarked, “I didn’t want their pity then and I don’t want it now.”
Her words made no sense to me. Wasn’t it sad, I thought, even tragic? I mean, she wasn’t a lost cause, but wouldn’t she hope people would bend over backwards to give her extra stumbling room?
“Maybe they were just feeling bad for you? I mean, they probably couldn’t relate very well,” I offered.
“No,” she replied, “They were giving me permission to be a screw-up. I’d be poor Annie and if I turned into a drug addict, or got straight F’s, or became an antisocial dropout I’d always have that excuse in their eyes. Like, Poor Annie couldn’t help it because her mom died. Or, You can’t blame poor Annie because it’s only to be expected.”
“You mean they thought you were going to fall apart?”
And then Annie appeared in a new light.
“I don’t know what they thought I’d do, but it didn’t matter. I resolved right then that I would never become that girl. I would never let my mom’s death become an excuse for screwing up my life. I would never hold my mom responsible for that. If I’m going to fail, it’s on me alone. I control who I am and what I do.”
“You decided this back in fifth grade?” I asked, remembering those debates with our CCD class.
“Yup,” she replied, as though it were the most natural thing in the world. That was that. And don’t forget to hold the mayo.
Decades later, I’d like to think we’re cut from the same cloth, but I’d only be flattering myself. Nobody’s made of the same cloth as Annie. She’s not perfect and I’m not trying to portray her that way, but she’s something extra. There’s a deep current running through her that’s wiser and stronger and more certain and more correct. Definitely better. Actually, pretty close to perfect.
She’s managed to retain her Catholic faith, while at the same time exploring her personal beliefs and spiritual experiences. She has remained steadfast in her conviction of right and wrong, while still allowing for all the beautiful shades of grey we can find in our existence on Earth. These things don’t always live comfortably side-by-side, but she gives them the space and time they need to get along.
Annie, who now goes by Anne, taught me that depth of character is at our very center, hard-fought and hard-won—and I’ve seen her fight like a tiger. She taught me that real beauty lies in the struggle itself, when you simply remember that life isn’t fair, you can’t expect it to be, and that it’s going to be OK anyway if you focus on the things that really matter. And she taught me that I should get used to having friends who were simply better than me in the best possible ways.